Guest Opinions

Labrador: Change 'Catch and release' policy; don't encourage migrants to bring children

Border patrol vehicles near the Rio Grande, where officers patrol for people crossing into the U.S. from Mexico early this week.
Border patrol vehicles near the Rio Grande, where officers patrol for people crossing into the U.S. from Mexico early this week. Los Angeles Times/TNS

The pictures of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border are heartbreaking. But what I find even more heartbreaking is the entire humanitarian crisis at the southern border. The root of the crisis is lax enforcement of our immigration laws, a problem that didn’t start under President Trump. In fact, the biggest reason for the crisis is that previous administrations pursued a “catch and release” policy for those seeking asylum after illegally crossing our borders.

When migrants are prosecuted for illegal entry and plead guilty, the proceedings are short - often within the same day. After, they are quickly reunited with their children. Where things get complicated is when a migrant in criminal proceedings files an asylum claim. In that scenario, they are detained for a longer period of time than the government is legally allowed to hold them with their children.

The reason for that is a ruling by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals known as the Flores Settlement. This ruling prohibits the government from detaining alien children for more than 20 days. Even if the government wants to detain a family together, it’s legally forbidden from doing so.

Because of the Flores Settlement, and subsequent court decisions, the Obama Administration doubled down on the policy to release parents in asylum proceedings who were accompanied by children. The results were predictable: From 2012 to 2017, asylum claims from Central America soared almost 900 percent.

Not surprisingly, the “catch and release” policy incentivized migrants to bring children into the U.S. to avoid detention. It also incentivized parents to send their children with other adults so they could claim asylum as a family unit at the border, even while their parents stayed home. The unintended consequences of “catch and release” are tragic: An exponential increase in illegal immigration; numerous children abused; countless women raped; and untold numbers of men and women killed, drowned, starved or dead of dehydration in the perilous journey to the U.S.

What makes these tragedies so unnecessary is there’s already a process in place for those who are legitimately seeking asylum. They can show up at any embassy or consulate abroad or any U.S. port of entry to make their asylum claims. Tellingly, these migrants refuse to make their claims at designated points and continue to pour into our country illegally. This strongly suggests that most migrants are coming to the U.S. for economic reasons, not because they have valid claims of persecution.

The Trump Administration, to its credit, wants to solve the immigration crisis. In an effort to discourage migrant families and children from embarking on this treacherous journey, the administration started prosecuting all adults illegally crossing the border, instead of giving a free pass to adults who arrived with children. This led to over 2,000 alien children being temporarily detained away from adults. This, in turn, caused the media firestorm that brought Washington to a standstill.

What’s interesting is that many in the media conveniently forgot that the Obama Administration also separated families at the border. At least the Idaho Statesman got it right when it ran a story last week titled, “Yes, Obama separated families at the border, too.

In 2014, when the crisis started under President Obama, the Idaho media was largely silent about this issue. The government continued to separate families in 2015, 2016, and 2017. But when President Trump took steps to end “catch and release,” there was an explosion of media interest.

I support President Trump’s policy to prosecute those who are violating our immigration laws. I also support his executive order from June 20 that keeps migrant families together while directing the government’s lawyers to ask for a modification of the Flores Settlement. I have worked with my House colleagues on legislation that would keep migrant families together without reverting to the failed “catch and release” policy. The bill we propose would also close loopholes in asylum law to curb fraud and abuse. This will reduce illegal crossings, while also protecting those who have legitimate asylum claims.

My proposed solution is supported by the majority of the American people. In a recent CBS News poll, 63 percent of Americans support keeping families together through better enforcement of our immigration laws. Only 21 percent support the “catch and release” policy advocated by Democrats and the liberal media.

Fixing our broken immigration system was President Trump’s No. 1 promise to the American people in the 2016 election. It’s also the No. 1 issue I’ve worked on as a member of Congress, and I will continue to work on it until my last day in office. I am committed to working with President Trump to keep families together and to make our entire country stronger and safer.

Raul Labrador is Idaho's 1st District congressman.